To ponder the wonderful and cruel vagaries of the record business, there's no better case study than the strangely mingled fates of Hootie and the Blowfish and Vancouver's 54-40.
Hootie, a multi-platinum sensation and critical punching bag, has signed on 54-40, beneficiaries of a smaller-but-devoted following and critical huzzahs, as opening act for tomorrow night's Corel Centre extravaganza. Devotees may know that the Blowfish contributed a version of 54-40's decade-old nugget I Go Blind to the TV soundtrack CD to Friends. But how many know the connection goes back about 10 years, when 54-40 was a fast-rising alternative sensation and Hootie was a glimmer in the eye of band member Dean Felber?
According to 54-40 bassist Brad Merritt, it all started at the time of 54-40's self-titled inaugural major-label release. Warner Music was giving the band a big push stateside, and a tour brought the quartet to Washington, D.C.'s 9:30 Club. "It was a great success. We went down to our dressing room, and there were these guys drinking our beer and eating our pizza," Merritt remembers. "They said: `Oh, we love you guys. You're great. We're from the University of South Carolina, and we're up here on our summer break. We play you guys on the college radio station all the time. We're in a band and we cover four of your songs.'" One of those acolytes was Felber, who says he first heard 54-40 through campus radio.
"I went out and got the album and totally freaked out over it. Baby Ran (54-40's first big video) was on Friday Night Videos. And that song was also being played in D.C. "Once I started listening to it, the band got into it. We were covering three songs on it," he says. "We were a band, but we were just a cover band at that point, had like three or four originals. We met them and stuff, tried to convince them they needed to come down to South Carolina (the band's home state). They weren't falling for it," Felber laughs. Merritt recalls one other backstage meeting with Felber and company, but they soon lost contact. The members of 54-40 went on to wider acclaim in Canada, but also endured label changes and limited exposure in the U.S. It's a safe bet Merritt never thought about those backstage visitors again, until someone told him a new American band had covered I Go Blind, and relegated it to a single b-side.
"We didn't know the name and we hadn't heard the single. We said okay, great. Whatever," recalls Merritt. "Then we find out the band is Hootie and the Blowfish and they had sold a half-million records. Then it was like, holy smokes! It went to two million, then three. By the time they got to five million, they came to Vancouver a year or so ago, and they were still doing I Go Blind in their set." Neil Osborne, 54-40's singer, came out and sang with Hootie at the show, and the mutual admiration society was re-established, although the scales of success had by now tipped in Hootie's favor. To make it even stranger, the 54-40 song was the last track cut from Hootie's Cracked Rear View, in favor of the group's monstrously successful I Only Wanna Be With You, says Felber. Had the track remained on the LP, the cash windfall would have been enormous.
"Actually, I went through a period where I tried not to think about it, but now I've learned to accept it," says Merritt. "It would have been amazing. But they put it on the Friends soundtrack, which went on to sell a couple million and is still selling. Right now, the song is number 18 in the U.S. on AC (adult contemporary radio) charts."
While Hootie has achieved the kind of widespread success that has eluded 54-40, they have sparked a violent critical backlash, while 54-40 still enjoys a comfortable respect.
"When we started out, we hadn't accomplished many goals and hadn't done much. We were the underdogs. People were really friendly to us, from critics to the average person in the street. And then you could just see it. And when we went platinum, it started to go the other way," says Felber.
"I think music actually scares people when it goes in a certain direction. I don't know. It is such a baffling thing to us .... I don't know why they feel this way, but they feel certain music disrespects them or is a personal insult to them." By contrast, Merritt is grateful that the music of 54-40 - including their latest album, Trusted By Millions - enjoys respect as pioneering alternative rock. And he has learned to strive for foreign success without succumbing to it.
"We get it from fans and the media. They say: `How come you guys haven't broken in the U.S?' Who gives a shit? It doesn't make our music any better if we do, or worse if we don't. "I think there is potential for the whole Canadian music scene, including fans, to grow up where that validation is not needed. It is interesting and it is sad that that is how it is.
"In our case, it has been particularly frustrating because we make music of quality and substance. Our music speaks for itself, and the fact that (I Go Blind), a song we made over 10 years ago, is now charting bigtime in the States as a single, that's a slight vindication for us."
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